Added value

<strong>The Tiger That Isn’t: Seeing Through a World of Numbers</strong>

Michael Blastland, Andre

This punchy book is about the numbers that saturate news reporting and political debate, and the way they can bamboozle us. The broadcaster Michael Blastland and the economist Andrew Dilnot debunk dozens of examples of statistical bunkum, aiming to empower us to decipher “today’s pre-eminent public language”.

Take the 2005 headline: “1 in 4 teen boys is a criminal.” The authors show how counting something means defining it, squeezing untidy reality into tidy boxes. In this case, sister-shovers and knife-wielding maniacs were lumped together. Or consider speed cameras. Accident statistics rise and fall in waves due to chance, yet public policy has a “truly shocking history of ignorance” in acknowledging this.

Elsewhere, the authors highlight a scientific group’s press release which states that greenhouse gases could cause average temperatures to rise “by up to 110C”. Cue apocalyptic headlines. But of the group’s 2,000 results, only one was 110C, while about 1,000 results were around 30C. This book is a valiant attempt to encourage healthy scepticism about statistics, against a culture in which both news producers and consumers “like extreme possibilities more than likely ones”.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Why Boris and London deserve each other